Following the rest of his teammates, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby was the last player to come out of Washington’s locker room for the start of the third period Saturday night. A baseball cap had replaced his mask. He took a spot at the end of the bench rather than skating over to the net. It had come to this, the Capitals’ star goaltender benched in favor of his understudy.
Washington lost to Pittsburgh, 6-2, in Game 2 of this Eastern Conference semifinal, and the Capitals are now in a two-games-to-none hole to start the series. Climbing out of that will be especially challenging with the next two games in Pittsburgh, and what were once strengths for the team — defense and goaltending — now seem to be weaknesses.
“I thought some of the goals, he wasn’t as sharp as he can be for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s a game-changer for us, and so when he didn’t change the game, I just looked to change the mojo there a little bit, that’s all.
“Braden’s our backbone, he has been all year. We’ve got to find some goals for him, too. We just can’t just put it on Braden Holtby. We’ve got to find some goals in our room right now, and we haven’t found enough.”
Holtby allowed three goals on 14 shots Saturday night, and in the two games this series, Holtby has now allowed six goals on 35 shots. Washington had allowed the fewest goals per game during the regular season, but in the playoffs, the Capitals have allowed the most goals of any team still standing. Holtby’s struggles have looked even worse when compared with how Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has played, stopping 34 shots in Game 2 as the Capitals again significantly outshot the Penguins.
Philipp Grubauer replaced Holtby for the third period for his first appearance in the playoffs. Coming in cold, he allowed two goals on nine shots against. Teams that have lost the first two games at home in a best-of-seven series are 18-69 to advance all time.
On Pittsburgh’s sixth shot of the game, Matt Cullen beat Holtby five-hole while the Penguins were shorthanded. Cullen blocked a point shot by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, then won a battle for the puck against Shattenkirk before outracing him to the net. Washington had 19 shots at that point.
The Capitals responded quickly. With Washington’s power play still ongoing after Cullen’s goal, the team took advantage of poor penalty-kill coverage by the Penguins, and Alex Ovechkin was able to set up Matt Niskanen for a one-timer all alone in front of Fleury. That marked Washington’s first goal in 20 shots and three power plays.
“They capitalized on some of our mistakes in the second, and it changed the game,” Niskanen said.
Holtby is a Vezina Trophy finalist again this season as one of the NHL’s top goaltenders, but as the Capitals have needed him to flash that steady, stingy form, he has looked shaky at times. In the first-round series against Toronto, Holtby was criticized after he allowed four goals in three consecutive games, nearly getting benched in Game 4. In this series, he allowed the Penguins three goals on 21 shots Thursday night, shouldering the blame after the Game 1 loss because he believed he should have stopped the first goal as well as the game-winner.
On Pittsburgh’s 12th shot of the game Saturday, winger Phil Kessel beat Holtby short-side 13:04 into the second period. Two shots and roughly three minutes later, Jake Guentzel lifted the Penguins to a two-goal lead going into the third period. At that point, the Capitals had 27 shots on goal to Pittsburgh’s 14 with little to show for it. When the teams came out for the final period, it was Grubauer who skated over to the Capitals’ net.
“Yeah, obviously, it’s never where you want to be,” Holtby said. “But the playoffs are made of big moments. That third goal, that’s a big moment. That’s where your goalie needs to come up with a save, and I just didn’t. Obviously, I was frustrated that I didn’t do that.”
Said defenseman Brooks Orpik: “We probably should stop giving up breakaways and two-on-ones and help him out a little bit.”
Though Washington lost Game 1 on Thursday, the Capitals were still encouraged by how they had played for the majority of the game, doubling the Penguins’ shot attempts. Saturday night was a frustrating continuation of dominating the Penguins without reaping a reward. Washington was able to spend most of the first period in the offensive zone, drawing two power plays and taking 10 of the first 11 shots on goal. The Capitals had a 35-8 shot-attempt advantage through the opening 20 minutes.
“We had lots of zone time, we were wearing on, had some good chances,” Trotz said, “and then unfortunately, we came out 0-0 after the first.”
Fleury shined in Game 1 with a 33-save performance, and he was well on his way to stealing the Penguins a second game after he stopped all 16 shots he saw in the first period. He wasn’t even Pittsburgh’s top option going into the postseason as Fleury only got the net because Matt Murray got hurt during warmups before the Penguins’ first playoff game.
He has now been the difference for Pittsburgh in this series as Washington’s net has been leaky.
“He’ll tell you that he can be better,” Trotz said of Holtby. “As he always is, he’s a straight-up guy. I was just trying to change the mojo.”